How should we understand our current moment regarding sexual harassment and violence? Who is at fault, where is the line and what are the consequences? Allegations against figures in the entertainment industry and ongoing allegations against current and past presidents and congressman have lead to a conversation about sexual harassment and abuse and larger discussions about what behavior is appropriate and how persons can be held accountable for their actions. And while nearly every commentator, pundit or person on Facebook or in conversation agrees that this type of violence is despicable and wrong and worth condemning outright, there lacks, certainly at the national level, consensus on what allows this violence to fester and how systems of power condones sexual violence.
In terms of root causes, many pundits discuss the sexual abuse allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as, “both a democrat and republican problem.” Some conservative commentators go further and point to how men are raised as causes of violence while liberals reference the patriarchy as the largest root cause of violence against women. While these are helpful strategies in discussing sexual violence each on its own merits does not go far enough in labeling the root causes of the mayhem that infests our society, in acknowledging the violence against all that is the beating heart of our capitalist system. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are capitalist parties with no real interest in changing the pre-existing power structures. And to blame the “culture” of masculinity or the patriarchy has the same limitations as blaming black “culture” for disadvantages in their communities or Muslim communities for religious violence. To locate blame in some inherent masculine trait is to disregard half the population of humanity, the vast majority of whom struggle under capitalism and are allies in the struggle against sexual oppression.
Sexual violence, against women and men, is its own type of horror, and each victim of sexual violence lives in their own paroxysm of grief, rage and humiliation. Acknowledging the uniqueness of sexual violence obviates us, however, in locating such violence in the constellation of violence that constitutes the capitalist system. Sexual violence is the valence of power, pure and simple. Even the term “sexual violence” obscures the power dynamic involved because its so easy to get caught on the “sexual” part at the expense of the “violence” part and become confused into thinking that this is just an extreme end on the spectrum of sexual gratification. Sexual violence uses sexual gratification to subjugate another person, an act no decent person would ever recognize as a legitimate type of sexuality. If we see sexual violence as about power we can begin to locate it among other forms of oppression that powerful people use against less powerful people. Moving beyond the halls of power or the glamour of Hollywood, we can see this dynamic play out in many workplace environments where a boss has the power to humiliate, exploit or threaten their employees. The Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote on behalf of 700,000 female farmworkers standing in solidarity with the victims of Hollywood actresses who have been victims of sexual abuse:
“Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”
Under a capitalist system there can never be a true reckoning with this type of abuse of power. Capitalism keeps the end goal of both the far right and the left at bay. The far right cannot enact their endgame of returning all women to the home in a Gilead-style patriarchy because it would deprive the market of too many workers and consumers. In turn, the left’s desire of a reckoning with sexual violence cannot come to pass because there would be an equal amount of economic shock if all men who have committed some form of sexual harassment or abuse were held to account. Again, too many workers and consumers would be lost. As the female farmworkers said, there is too much at risk, too many families to feed. Under capitalism we are too economically dependent on each other to make a real inroad into changing the systems of power that protect sexual abuse.
The imaginative leap comes when we can stand in solidarity not only with these women, but all the victims of capitalism, both men and women. Sexual violence festers in hierarchical power structures, as does the violence committed by the police against Tamir Rice, as does the suicide and opioid epidemic in rural white communities. To fail to locate sexual violence as another, uniquely horrific, example of capitalist violence risks ghettoizing this violence, to marginalize it as another social problem among many. And to not locate sexual violence among other forms of capitalist violence is to risk pushing the victims of that violence into the arms of the nascent fascist movement that is growing in America.
The victims of sexual violence need to be heard, comforted and counseled wherever possible. Victimization happens individually, behind closed doors, perpetrated and disregarded by those in power. Erasing the hierarchical power structures that allow capitalism and its attendant violence to thrive can only be accomplished collectively, in the clear light of day.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)